May 12, 2006

Cory Booker T.?

For several years now, the weekly online Black Commentator has been excoriating Newark mayor-elect Cory Booker, calling him a stealth candidate four years ago when he ran and lost and the white Right's man earlier this year. Those claims are similar to the charge of this year's opponent that Booker is a New Jersey point-person of the far-right Christian wing of the Republican Party, and the allegation by one blogger that Booker is DINO (Democrat in Name Only) in large part because of Booker's support for vouchers. It's enough to recall DuBois's Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others. (Yes, I know: I made another comparison using the DuBois essay a few days ago. It's a classic essay.) 7:35 pm afterthought: Of course, in this case, Booker (Cory Booker) did earn representation by winning an election.

But to call the appeal of vouchers to African Americans a result of strategic planning and funding by the Bush regime, the Waltons and, especially, the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, which invented both the “Black” voucher “movement” and faith-based initiatives in the mid-Nineties, as the Black Commentator did, or to say that Booker is sure to get first-class advice on [tax-credit-style vouchers] from Washington, is to misunderstand African-American debates over education reform and a common rule about such reforms....

There is no doubt that conservative think tanks, foundations, and donors are supporting pro-voucher African Americans. But a few points are in order here:

  1. Views in African American communities about education are far from monolithic and have been far from monolithic for decades. Jack Dougherty's award-winning More Than One Struggle, about several generations of Black education activists in Milwaukee, explains the complex dynamics of reform within a single city. Barbara Shircliffe's soon-to-be-released Best of That World, about Tampa's desegregation history, explores the ambivalence many have felt towards desegregation in our city, and Gloria Ladson-Billings' lecture a few years ago, Landing on the Wrong Note, summarizes much of the national literature relevant to the ambivalence. The Connecticut state NAACP's opposition to the state's NCLB lawsuit is another reflection of the complexity of education politics.
  2. If there is exploitation here, it is not entirely clear who is exploiting whom. Those who want to claim exploitation need to explain and document what they mean by what is usually referred to as a one-way process.
  3. Part of the reason why vouchers draw support from a substantial minority of African Americans is the fact that they comprise a concept that's floating in the ether, a specific solution that is mentally available to those frustrated with their local schools. As Michelle Fine puts it, we can only work with the ideas that are in our head. Here is really where the work of foundations has paid off—not convincing people that vouchers form a perfect solution but that it is a viable alternative to sitting on their hands. Frustrated parents and activists look to viable alternatives. (Can someone more familiar with psychology help me with the term for "mentally available" ideas?)
  4. The incomplete and mixed results of research on more than 15 years of voucher experiments in the U.S. and elsewhere are leading folks to a perspective that vouchers are not a competition-inducing panacea for school reform. Just a few snippets from Matt Yglesias, Andrew Rotherham, and Jenny D. suggest at least a mini-consensus. I know of at least one numbers-crunching economist who says that the outcomes issue is the least interesting one he's expecting from current research. If you think African-American parents in communities with vouchers are less sensitive to this mixed record than researchers and policy wonks, I'd like to sell you some land in Florida. (Just not the bit underneath my house.)
  5. The existence of voucher programs on the ground undermines the competition-based argument of voucher proponents. As I explain to my undergraduates, one of the underlying policy issues is the relative value of shaking up the system vs. stability. Many of my students say, "Why not fix the schools that already exist? What about the kids who stay in the current schools?" And I explain that voucher proponents don't see the increased uncertainty as a problem—it is part of what they want to drive school improvement. But there's also a legitimate value in stability. The reductio ad absurdum argument here is to imagine a system where schools are like fruit vendors, popping up and closing without warning, at any time. I pose this thought experiment not to imply that voucher proponents want this type of system (I suspect none do) but to point out the underlying disagreement. All of us lie somewhere on the spectrum of stability vs. chaos in terms of the right balance. The competition argument for vouchers emphasizes the value of more chaos.

    But what happened in Florida with the legal threats to vouchers? Proponents gathered existing students, parents, and allies for a 4000-person rally in Tallahassee. New York Times columnist John Tierney wrote about Adrian Bushell (subscription required) and other students who have used vouchers. The subtext of their arguments were that we needed to protect the education that these children are currently receiving in the program. In other words, they advocated the continuation of the voucher program for stability. As Larry Cuban wrote in 1992, one of the ways that reforms survive is gathering a constituency to fight for their continuation.

Stability is an inherent political need of any reform, limiting the extent to which any reform that values uncertainty and chaos to any degree can actually practice uncertainty. Though the most frustrated parents may seek change and tolerate instability, they will often be attracted to stability as soon as their personal or social threshold for acceptable education is reached.

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Posted in Education policy on May 12, 2006 6:07 PM |